Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides ; the sixth is almost entirely filled with an index that may truly be called prodigious; all are rich in appendixes, while Croker himself was not a busier commentator. Of the vast labour spent on this edition who now needs to be told ? In reverence for Johnson's memory and in admiration

for his genius Dr. Hill indeed yields not even to Boswell. His deį light in his work has perhaps at times led him into some superfluous

liberality in the matter of notes; but his apt quotation of Johnson's famous advice to students of Shakespeare must go far to disarm criticism. The reader who has prepared himself by a previous perusal of Boswell's text will often find much amusement, and not a little curious information, in Dr. Hill's notes. I cannot take leave of him without expressing the obligations I owe to him, and to the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, for their courtesy in permitting me the free use of these volumes, as well as to the liberality with which he has at all times offered me the results of his long devotion to the great figure of his hero.

Of the present edition there is little to say. Neither the plan nor the size of the series to which it belongs permits much indulgence in the alluring, though often dangerous, pastime of annotation, had I been disposed to exercise it. All Boswell's own notes have of course been preserved, and distinguished with the initial B. That is the first duty of every editor; but it is a duty which the portentous length, tediousness, and irrelevancy of some of Boswell's notes must often have tempted his editors to omit. For the rest I can claim to have done little more than feed upon my predecessors, who have indeed left little more to be done. My own contributions are few and unimportant; what has been selected from others will, I trust, be found to the purpose.

I trust also that I have been sufficiently careful to indicate the various sources of my obligations. If I have in any instances failed, let it be attributed to inadvertence, or, if the reader pleases, to carelessness; not to a desire to claim the merit of other men's labours.

Of Boswell himself, and of his work, can any new thing be said ? "Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere." If Macaulay's superb panegyric now needs a little toning down, it must be remembered how scanty at the time it was delivered (in 1831) was the roll of great biographies. Lockhart's Life of Scott, for instance, the only work of its kind which is allowed to dispute precedence with Boswell's, was still unwritten, though the time for it was drawing all too near; but Moore's Life of Byron (which Macaulay had already reviewed), Southey's Life of Nelson and his Life of Wesley were surely not to be placed in the ruck. All, however, will agree that Boswell's book has some distinguishing qualities of its own unmatched by any biography that the world had then or has since seen. Even the inimitable portrait of Coleridge, enshrined on Highgate Hill “as a kind of Magus girt in mystery and enigma,” which Carlyle has drawn in his Life of John Sterling, must yield to the supreme power and reality of some of Boswell's scenes.

In the preface to the fourth edition Malone hazarded the prediction that highly as the work was then estimated, “It will, I am confident, be still more valued by posterity a century hence, when all the actors in the scene shall be numbered with the dead.” This confidence has been amply verified. The popularity of Boswell's book has steadily increased with the century. Four thousand copies of it had been sold when Malone wrote those words thirteen years after its first publication. How many copies of it have since been sold I cannot even pretend guess; but we may, I think, reasonably conclude that the proportion is considerably larger. All the irritation and annoyance that were freely expressed on its first appearance, when so many of those mentioned in it, and not always

[blocks in formation]

mentioned in complimentary or courteous fashion, were still alive, have long since passed away. And as it is with the biography, so it is with its hero. No reader now need wince from Johnson's "forcible hug”; all the instances of his boorishness, his arrogance, his insolence, so faithfully recorded by his candid friend, leave our withers unwrung; he can descend on none of us “like a hammer on the red son of the furnace.” The enjoyment of Boswell's skill is unalloyed by any bitter memories of personal corroboration. It is akin to that supposed to be experienced by witnessing in safety the discomfiture of our best friends.

And Boswell's fame has gone hand in hand with Johnson's. It is not indeed, and never has been an unmixed fame. Many harsh things were said of him in his life-time; harsher things have been said since his death. He gave, it must be confessed, only too good cause for them, but they need not now nor here be revived. It was inevitable that curiosity should be roused over the life of the man who had excelled (to use his own words on Johnson) in writing the life of another. But that curiosity has now been amply satisfied ; it is not necessary, it seems indeed something ungracious, to go over again a more than thrice-told tale to the discredit of one who has so bountifully contributed to the instruction and to the gaiety of mankind. In his own writings, in the letters to Temple especially, his faults may be easily detected by those with eyes to see; others have added to the portrait with varying touches of circumstance and charity, many of his contemporaries, for instance, Mrs. Thrale, Madame D'Arblay, Horace Walpole ; the Boswelliana of the Rev. C. Rogers is a very store-house of anecdote and gossip; while the famous essays of Macaulay and Carlyle fairly summarize all that can be said for and against him. To such authorities those who are still interested in the subject may be left to turn. We cannot indeed apply to poor Boswell all the fine and generous judgment pronounced by Johnson on Goldsmith; but though he was not a very great man, at least we can surely now afford to forget his frailties.

It should be remembered too that Boswell was essentially a man of whom it may be said that he was his own worst enemy. No member of that distinguished society which he so assiduously courted seems to have nourished an unkindly feeling for him. He often annoyed them by his importunities and indiscretions, and he sometimes more than annoyed them. But the vexation soon passed. It would indeed have been impossible to take Boswell seriously enough to be really angry with him for long. The lines which Pope, in jest, wrote on his own character, would stand in sober earnest for Boswell's.

Still idle, with a busy air,

Deep whimsies to contrive ;
The gayest valetudinaire,

Most thinking rake alive.

The very frankness of his follies, the sublime audacity with which he flourished them in the faces of his friends, dissolved anger in laughter. Laugh at him they must and did, but they could not dislike him. And against his failings must be set off his cheerfulness, his good temper, his real fondness for his friends, the meekness with which he bore the just reproofs he so often earned, his admiration for all that was good and great, which, though often ludicrously expressed nor always capable of preserving him from admiration for other things that were neither great nor good, was undoubtedly genuine. His extraordinary want of tact, and his transcendent vanity made him often seem malicious, and his desire to stand first with Johnson sometimes took the form of deprecating those whom he found in his way; yet his nature was generous and kindly at the

But Johnson's attitude to him is at once the best explanation of Boswell's character and the best testimony to his worth. Though often laughing at him, scolding him, insulting him, there can be ne question that the great man in his heart loved his little friend wel Boswell might, in truth, be called the Oliver Proudfute of the society he has immortalised,

core.

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]

He did many foolish things, but assuredly he was no fool. When his book was published the truth and brilliancy of its extraordinary rte portraiture were instantly recognized, and have never since been ite disputed. Burke pronounced it a greater monument to Johnson's

fame than all the Doctor's own writings; Reynolds declared that sei every word might be depended upon as if given on oath.” Yet LISI

some have maintained, both then and since, that he only blundered

into success. op

Gray, after reading his Account of Corsica, dismissed him as a fool who had written well by chance, by the simple expedient of keeping a note-book and recording in it all he saw and heard. Macaulay took up this view and elaborated it in his own heightened and telling fashion. There is indeed more foundation for it than for Carlyle's fantastic arguments founded on his own

theory of hero-worship. It is true that we laugh at Boswell as often d as we laugh with him. It is true that if he had not been willing to

spare himself no more than he spared his friends his work would 70 have lost much of its entertainment; for though some of the s ridiculous and degrading exhibitions that Boswell gives of himself it are obviously due to what Johnson would have called “stark or insensibility,” it is no less certain that for the most part the plea he I made in his preface holds good, and that he was perfectly conscious ē of what he was doing and perfectly ready to sacrifice himself for the

success of his design. It is true that the admiration which three generations of men have lavished on his book has never stimulated any admiration for its author. But this is not all the truth. Boswell did not write his book by chance. He did not blunder into success. On the contrary he toiled after it with infinite pains and dexterity; he has commanded it because he has deserved it. The art of which he had already shown traces in his Account of Corsica, of which he had learned the secret in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, rose its height in the Life of Johnson.

The book is indeed unequal. Johnson, when pressed by Boswell to give his opinion on the Account of Corsica, gave it in the

« AnteriorContinuar »